The bicentenary of European settlement in Port Macquarie will be acknowledged in April 2021. The Port Macquarie News will publish a series of monthly feature stories to mark the occasion. Our first feature story looks at life in this area pre-settlement.
Aboriginal historian, author and Birpai traditional owner Dr John Heath says First Nations People enjoyed a somewhat Utopian society, before Europeans arrived.
Dr Heath described the Indigenous peoples as amongst perhaps "the most advanced societies that mankind has known".
"And that is confronting to people who see things through today's technological world," he admits.
"I like to highlight that traditional Aboriginal society had no jails, no armies, no wars, no invasion, no slavery and no poverty.
"To me, these are measures of well-being. Some would suggest a Utopian society, a mature society.
"Surely this is something we should aspire to achieve."
Pre-colonisation, the Birpai peoples were "happy, and more prone to laughter than tears" he said, quoting a non-Indigenous commentator's words regarding his experiences around Port Stephens, which coincided with the early European occupation of Port Macquarie.
"And that is quite profound," Dr Heath added.
While there were census gathered in Port Macquarie in the 1830s and specifically in 1835 (which recorded 750 Goories), Dr Heath believes these would only provide a minimum number of Indigenous peoples living in the area.
He said the recorded figures only highlighted those in close contact with European settlers.
Rather than the country being labelled terra nullius, Dr Heath paints a picture of an ordered, civil society where everyone abided by traditional law, much of which was reinforced through the Dreaming beliefs.
"The continent was made up of nation states, where Welcome to Country was a practice.
"One did not pass into another's country without following proper protocols: that is, to wait until you were invited.
"They were self-governing. The exact area of the Birpai nation is debatable due to the breakdown of traditional law and the destruction of traditional pre-contact sites.
"Some of the markers were clear to our old people but are not as clear today because they have been destroyed through land clearing.
"My understanding is that the northern boundary commenced at the watershed of the Wilson and Maria rivers and our country extended south to the watershed of the Gloucester River. The ranges formed the western boundary and the ocean was the eastern boundary.
"I'd put the population at point of contact of at least 1000 people but it could well have been up to 2000.
"In this area were clans - and you can debate the number of clan estates - but there was certainly at least eight. Most of these would have populations of between 150 and 250 people, consisting of closely related peoples.
"There was seasonal movement within the clan estate to ensure that people enjoyed good health.
"Clans would camp at one site between one to two weeks before moving. Fixed settlement was not part of the lifestyle," Dr Heath said. "And this helped facilitate well-being".
Each clan recognised a kind of ownership, a sense of belonging, over a certain estate.
Clans interacted on a semi regular basis although there were larger gatherings of clans, often for ceremonial and trade purposes.
Dr Heath says these events most normally occurred at prescribed times, attracting clans from over 100 miles away, and sometimes attracted up to 1000 participants.
"Traditional society cared for everyone," Dr Heath said, "because society had its rules and regulation set down in the Dreaming. They are based on our understanding of the world and our place in it: a departure from contemporary society.
"Traditional culture is based around adapting to the environment rather than changing the environment to suit our current needs.
"Laws were handed down through the Dreaming.
"There was an understanding that we conserved nature. We work with nature, rather than exploit nature. The land is our mother."
Dr Heath suggests this was noticeably different at the time of European contact.
He says the European concept of cutting down an entire tree arguably led to the first conflicts.
"First Nations People used resources, including trees. But we didn't destroy the tree in the process. The bark, the leaves, the branches, the twigs, were all used. Knobs were used for water containers," he said.
"But the tree remained standing. it wasn't destroyed.
"To me, this shows the complex thinking that went into the survival (of First Nations People)."
He says First Nations People were a developed society living in harmony with its environment.
"The traditional cultural use of fire, which is gaining late recognition, is also viewed as an example of living with the environment. It no doubt altered aspects of the environment, but it did not destroy it."
Food supplies were generally not stored and were normally eaten fresh. But some foods, including fish, were kept by smoking.
Dr Heath says First Nations People did not suffer from illness and diseases typical of Europeans at the time.
"The life expectancy for a convict in Port Macquarie was around 50 years of age while First Nations people were living much longer than that.
'"Smallpox, influenza and venereal disease were common diseases in Europe and when they were imported to Australia, there was no immunity for the Indigenous population.
"To me that indicates we did not have that kind of extent of life-threatening sickness. Of course we had illness, but we had adapted science to create medicines to combat those diseases."
"Non-Indigenous society is now realising the value of these bush medicines - ti-tree oil is just one example."
The clans were also quick to identify a food source that could be shared, Dr Heath says.
"If a whale washed up, our people would use that carcass for meat and oil but there was obviously far too much just for one clan to consume. So the message would be spread across the neighbouring clans - particularly to the Dunghutti nation to the north.
"Oxley witnessed salmon washing up on the beach in great numbers; another opportunity for an unplanned gathering for the clans."
First Nations Peoples meted out punishments that could be judged as quite harsh, Dr Heath says.
But the protocols of any punishment meant that once complete, the transgressor would return to normal relations within the clan.
"So people weren't forever the subject of an ongoing punishment," he said.
"There was banishment, along with the handing out of capital and corporal punishments.
"However, I believe, that banishments could be for a set timeframe while death was reserved for the more severe crimes.
"Other crimes saw people given the opportunity to physically defend themselves. This may have included having a small shield to protect themselves from a series of thrown spears. If they survived that, they were considered to have served their punishment.
"But we weren't a perfect society because we were made up of people. And all of us have our flaws. Hence the need for a system of justice. However, it was a fair system of justice."
He said right and wrong was taught from an early age through story-telling and learnings of the Dreaming.
"As well, there was traditional law which included men's and women's law, which built on the lessons of childhood once a child reached puberty."
"There were probable interactions between Europeans and the Birpai peoples during the early stages of European settlement prior to the establishment of the Port Macquarie penal colony.
Escaping convicts from Sydney and later Newcastle, would invariably head north in search of freedom.
The establishment of a penal colony in Port Macquarie and the impact on the Birpai peoples was offset with the arrival of three Awabakal Goories from the Newcastle area as part of Allman's party.
"The group included Biraban and their role was to assist in tracking and apprehending runaway convicts, as well no doubt, to assist in communications with the Birpai," Dr Heath said.
"They were to remain here for a number of years. So our people learnt quickly what they could or could not do in the eyes of the English invaders.
"Working in favour of the Indigenous population was that the settlement was basically limited to the foreshore area.
"However, that relationship changed within the first few months when there was a spearing of some timber-getters which led to retaliatory killing of Goories.
"I believe they were speared because they were breaking cultural law and not because of their isolation (the timber-getters were believed to be around the Rolland Plains area).
"They may have been in culturally sensitive areas or, if they were cutting down trees that would be in direct violation to traditional law. That may have led to the confrontations."
Dr Heath describes the Birpai peoples as "basically a peaceful people" who did not "attack whites simply because they were white".
He says there is a misbelief that the settlement was "peaceful".
"It was only peaceful as long as traditional law was maintained," he said.
Dr Heath accepts there were some instances where local Indigenous warriors were seen to be gathering numbers of Indigenous peoples in opposition to the European invasion.
"I certainly recognise that there was ongoing hospitality and hostility. But hostility was not an ongoing concept for the Indigenous peoples," he added.
Dr Heath says working toward a binding treaty would address many of the wrongs committed against the Indigenous population.
"We didn't understand what an invasion was. It is an alien concept to us. Traditional culture respected property rights, the rights of ownership - both personal and communal," he said.
"Traditional culture is at our centre - it is our underlying sense - and we won't ever really advance as a society unless we have a treaty.
"What I hope comes out of next year (the bicentenary) is not just a focus on the last 200 years but that is used to resolve the unresolved.
"We, as a people, did not give up our right to this country. We still belong to this country. We care for this country.
"However, we don't experience the same level of well-being as that which is being experienced by the non-Indigenous community," he said.
"Prior to 1821, all Indigenous peoples obtained equal benefit from the environment, equal rights and equal obligations.
"Those things need to be addressed," he said. "The first step is to accept the concept of 'truth telling'.
"The bicentenary should provide an opportunity to move forward together as equals. The non-Indigenous community celebrations of the John Oxley bicentenary did little to address the injustices of the past, and their trans-generational consequences."
- Images from Thomas Dick Photographic Collection 1910-1920 . Supplied by Dr. John Heath in accordance with the Protocols adopted by the Thomas Dick Collection Family Stakeholders Group. Known subjects in images displayed are Charlie Murray (Snr), Peter Budge and Neil Morcom.